Monday, June 10, 2013

The NSA's Spying Imperils our Democracy and Diminishes our Security

Last week, on the heels of revelations about federal seizure of customer records from Verizon, the public learned from the Guardian newspaper that using the National Security Agency (NSA), the Obama administration was using a secretive national security program to spy on the public using records from Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype,  AOL, and Apple. 

The Guardian describes the program as one which “facilitates extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information.  The law allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms who live outside the U.S. or those Americans whose communications include people outside the U.S.  It also opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the U.S. being collected without warrants”.

The behaviour of our national security apparatus and of the Obama administration is dangerous and reprehensible on any number of levels.  Firstly, there is the civil libertarian objection on principle to what sounds like a mind-boggling invasion of privacy.  Then there is the secrecy and unaccountability of the program, its existence only revealed by a conscientious whistleblower.  Both the secrecy and the prying nature of this program bespeak a mistrust by the government of the public, the very group it is supposed to be serving rather than manipulating.  And of course, given what we know about the bloody and perilous process of murder-by-drone on the basis of behaviour-profiling, the fact that our national security agencies are developing a similar system of profiling which can be deployed at home should worry us all. 

With the impatience and contempt which increasingly characterise his relations with the public and with journalists, the President snapped that “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.  That’s not what this program was about...what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls”.  But that’s the whole point: that these blinkered agencies who are supposed to serve the public interest don’t think that they actually have to listen to our calls to judge our behaviour.  They believe that “metadata” is sufficient to make calls about security threats.  They’ve killed people abroad on the basis of this type of profiling, and it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to harassing or imprisoning people at home using the same. 

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the NSA claims to have “the technical know-how to ensure it’s not illegally spying on Americans”.  But this misses one of the most disturbing points of this whole sorry episode, which is sure to bring the President, our spy agencies, the national security apparatus, and indeed our whole government, into disrepute.  This is the fact that the NSA’s actions were legal, authorised in some dark recess of an increasingly inaccessible and closed-off national security labyrinth.  That such far-reaching measures were initiated with neither public debate nor public scrutiny illustrates the sinister character of the relationship between our national security organs and the citizens of what is ostensibly a democratic state.

While the reaction to this infringement on civil liberties has been perhaps predictably understated in a nation which has grown accustomed to revelations of such abuse over the past 13 years, there are murmurs of discontent issuing from at least a few official quarters.  Senator Mark Udall has called for revisiting the provisions of the Patriot Act, rightly noting that it is untenable that legislators to be asked to accept at face value the claim that metadata has yielded results in combating terrorism while not being presented with evidence because such evidence would be classified.  California’s powerful senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, remarked that she would be open to hearings, although she quickly admitted that given the classified nature of the information, whether such hearings would shed any light on the NSA’s activities is very much an open question.  But others, like Senator John McCain, defended the program, saying that legislators were at fault if they did not know of its existence (confusing the authorisation of such programs by the Patriot Act with their actual initiation), begging the question of whether McCain knew of this particular program. 

The President’s remaining supporters, who are sounding increasingly laboured in their efforts to defend the indefensible, point to his cynical claim made in California last week that “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 per cent security and also have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience”.

But this ignores virtually all of the claims made by opponents of the sweeping Obama-Bush expansion of state security.  In the first place, the supposed need for an intrusive security state is based upon the supposed need to fight an unending war which we know to be unjustified and self-destructive.  It is a war which, in the parlance of security ‘experts’, assures that the ‘blowback’ we receive from our actions will far outweigh the initial threat that these measures were designed to combat.  The NSA’s program is designed to address a symptom generated by its own behaviour rather than the underlying cause of our insecurity.

Moreover, I believe—and hope—that most of us who are critical of the rise of a security state believe that a certain kind of liberty is more important than the kind of security which the “Fortress America” being built by our President and elected representatives promises to provide.  We would do well to heed the words of Benjamin Franklin, penned on the eve of thirteen colonies’ plunge into an experiment in democracy, the consequences of which reverberate around the world today and continue to inspire people elsewhere on the globe, irrespective of many of its negative consequences: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both”.

Another founder, James Madison, wrote in The Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to government, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions”.

We sadly live in a world in which both the elected and permanent institutions of government in the national security sphere are increasingly independent of their citizens.  Corporate power, popular cynicism, apathy, an undemocratic political structure, and a series of self-perpetuating wars have conspired to freeze people out of the governing of their own affairs.  More than ever, we need those “auxiliary precautions”, which should come in the form of a reinvigorated citizenry, a more responsive state, a vocal and investigative press, and more stringent methods for demanding accountability and shining light into the recesses of the security state.


  1. The last paragraph of this blog post should be the premise of a book you should write!

    I always appreciate your insight and sincerely agree with this post.

  2. That's very kind of you to say so. Hopefully we can all do a little bit to spread some awareness of the problems we face as a nation and a society.